Love, Power and Gold: Dallas Symphony Orchestra Performs Wagner’s Epic Ring Cycle

If you take it at face value, it’s an epic tale of gods and gnomes, fighting over a gold ring that confers supreme power over the world. But there’s a more compelling way to look at The Ring of the Nibelung, Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle.

“It is a mirror of our existence … a mirror of our humanity, a mirror of the world in which we are living,” says Fabio Luisi, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s music director. The characters, he continues, confront “the same issues we are facing … questions of power, of love, of family, of hate, of envy.”

After four years of planning, Luisi and his orchestra, with the help of a battalion of singers, are gearing up to bring their audience the whole saga. Wagner’s first two parts, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre will come May 1-5, semi-staged in Meyerson Symphony Center. In October, Luisi and company will turn to the rest—Siegfried and Götterdämmerung—then perform the whole cycle in sequence.

“I think (the Ring) belongs to the most important works ever written,” Luisi says. It changed the course of music history and music-theater history, he continues, and “it’s great music—great opera. It’s so important and so deep and so heartfelt.”

In the Ring, human urges operate on a cosmic scale. The first scene of Das Rheingold introduces a hoard of gold at the bottom of the Rhine river. Alberich, a gnome, steals it and forges the all-commanding ring. Wotan, chief of the gods, learns of the ring’s force and wrests it from Alberich—who promptly puts a curse on it. When Wotan has to hand over the ring to pay a pair of giants who have built his new fortress, he sees the curse at work: One giant slays the other in a fight over the ring.

Die Walküre pulls mortals into the saga. Wotan foresees the cost of his treachery, and his daughter Brünnhilde launches a quest to save the gods from ruin. Her plan centers on a mortal pair’s child.

The magnetism of the Ring’s most famous excerpts, such as the rousing “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre, represents only one facet of the music’s impact. Wagner weaves an ever-evolving sonic tapestry from themes that conjure up characters, places, objects and emotions. The massive orchestra booms and blazes to depict upheavals, but it also delivers surges of melody and splashes of tone-painting. The vocal parts well up from there, filling the characters with passion, poetry and vividness.

The Ring’s time scale is just as expansive: Das Rheingold lasts about 3½ hours without an intermission, and Die Walküre’s three acts total about four hours of music. To Luisi, who has conducted the Ring at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Germany’s Saxon State Opera, this breadth is as important as the cycle’s other elements. When he first studied and led the Ring, he says, he discovered “a different consciousness about time.”

“The way the feelings and the situations in these operas are described, approached and explained is something we should (emulate) in our daily lives more—taking time for going deep in ourselves, in our souls,” Luisi says. “This is something I learned from these operas—especially from doing the entire Ring.”

“This is especially important in the time we are living now, which is very fast,” he says. Today’s attitude is that “everything should be quick and smooth and fast.” But the Ring “forces us to take more time for thinking in depth. …  For me as a musician, the approach to these operas was life-changing. I think many of our musicians will feel the same after they have played the four operas.”

Here’s a gauge of how ambitious the Dallas Symphony’s Ring is: Veterans of the orchestra field can’t even recall when a U.S. group last succeeded in bringing the Ring into the concert hall. The Cleveland Orchestra launched a cycle in 1992, only to call it off after the first two installments. The main stumbling blocks, as described in Donald Rosenberg’s The Cleveland Orchestra Story, were money and casting.

In Dallas, the fundraising is progressing and the casting is set. Among the main roles, Wotan will be bass-baritone Mark Delavan, who performed the role with Luisi at the Met. Soprano Lise Lindstrom, who played the title role in Puccini’s Turandot for Dallas Opera in 2013, will return as Brünnhilde.

Lining up singers and money was by no means all the preparation this Ring has required. For instance, the orchestra players’ contract had no provision for performances clocking in at five hours or more. Those don’t arise in the symphonic repertoire.

“We started very early to talk with our musicians: ‘How can we do this?’” Luisi says “We found very open ears from the musicians themselves, and from the union. They helped us find solutions.”

Luisi and the Dallas Symphony first moved into opera with semi-staged performances of Richard Strauss’ Salome in 2020; Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin followed in 2022. With the Ring, too, he thinks playing opera will help yield a more cultivated and responsive orchestra.

“There’s a big difference” compared to playing symphonic repertoire, Luisi says, “because they have to react to what the singers are doing. They cannot take for granted the tempi we did in the rehearsals, because the singers change sometimes. The orchestra … develops a sort of awareness, a sort of attention—being personally involved in what is happening.”

Luisi sees the audience getting just as personally involved. With the theatrical trappings of sets and visual spectacle out of the way, he says, the audience can focus on the music.

“Getting back to an auditory experience—where you are just listening to the music—that is a beautiful experience,” Luisi says. Wagner’s score conjures up the characters, emotions and conflicts.

“The music is actually self-explanatory,” Luisi adds. “If you don’t understand exactly what they are singing because of the language, the music tells the story so well. The music tells even more than the words. This is a journey. It’s a great story. It’s thrilling. It’s exciting. And you can see everything in the music.”